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by L.J. Bothell | March 10, 2009

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No matter how you plan it, every day is a busy day. However much you'd like to take time out to catch up or schedule a self-session to organize your workload, you never really seem to find time to make it happen. Sure, you manage to get your work done, right? But is that enough? Wouldn't you like to always have that relaxed feeling of knowing, regardless of meetings, rush projects or upcoming vacation, that you are in charge of your workload?

You may not be able to stem the tide of actual assignments, but the more you organize your priorities and existing workload, the more you will be able to accurately determine where you are in any given project, as well as how you can honestly accept new ones, and give quick reports to others who are affected by your workload. Here are a few must-try strategies to make your workday easier.

  1. Set up a basic sort system. You may like working out of piles, but have you ever noticed that you almost always have trouble finding something just when you need it? Whether you are casual or ultra organized, setting up basic sort stations for all your incoming information will really help you prioritize and find anything you need at a moment's notice. Just make sure you create a system with titles you feel comfortable with so your mind will dart right to the proper file when you need something immediately. For instance, set up several priority folders in your e-mail program, like "hot," "meetings," "project name," "reference," "from the boss," etc. For your desk, create action files with physical manila folders or accordion files that you can prop up (don't stack) or place in a handy drawer. Include prepared empty folders for incoming assignments.

  2. Handle all of your incoming data economically. This includes your e-mail, voicemail, real-time phone calls, regular mail and new assignments. It's really easy for incoming items to constantly demand your attention and drain your day. However, healthy workplace habits are built the same way your physical health is: by working smart and doing things in moderation. For example, if you receive new e-mails and voicemails all day long, cover all your bases by taking swift check-ins first thing in the morning and right after lunch. Quickly scan/listen to messages to determine their priority with regard to upcoming meetings or current project needs, and send off a prompt answer (promising more follow-up later if necessary). Place all e-mails to be kept into preset folders in your e-mail program and delete absolutely EVERYTHING else you do not require. Do the same with your voicemail by making quick notes, giving a concise response, and filing the notes in your physical action files. This also works with your postal mail and incoming job assignments. Your goal is to do a quick scan, sort all incoming data and set each item aside, rather than getting bogged down by handling each and every incoming contact from beginning to end. Finally, don't get sucked into answering the phone every time it rings (or reading every incoming e-mail right away). Answer calls from people you are waiting for, and let the others ring into voicemail.

  3. Consider how you actually process information and assignments. It's appealing to work on one thing until it's finished, but in today's busy office, that's rarely possible. Get into the habit of handling bite-sized chunks of data, setting them aside and coming back again when your time or flow is more conducive. For instance, a desktop publisher might have four new rush flyers to create with photos to scan and clean up, text to draft and format to create and print out. She could scan all of the photos at once, clean them all when the photo program is open, and later lay out the flyers one at a time while the layout program is open. Or, consider a word processor with dictation, four letters, a contract and text for a report. He might take the dictation first to get the latest data for any of the other projects then handle the letters all at once regardless of their due times. Next he might type out the report text to send off to the next recipient before taking the time needed to concentrate on the heavily detailed contract. Fight the urge to begin and end one long task by developing ways to combine similar activities that cross over several assignments. You'll get things done more quickly, learn to multitask more easily and almost always beat your deadlines.

  4. Know when to let sleeping dogs lie. Sometimes you have ongoing or long-term projects where you receive exchanges of information over days or weeks. After you set up your part and get ready to move ahead, what do you do while you wait for others to get back to you? Worse, how do you manage to remember what is supposed to be coming in, what you need to get out, and when? It's simple. Use a combination of your calendar system and your action files (see strategy No. 1). First, add all big projects, meetings and deadlines to your electronic calendar system (with pop-up reminders). And make sure you prioritize, checking it at least once a day, such as first thing in the morning with your e-mail. You can use the same method with a calendar booklet, personal organizer or wall calendar, if you prefer. Calendars not only tip you off to the day's requirements, they allow you to point out your priorities to others if someone tries to drop something new on you. Then, when you first set up any new project in your action filing system, make sure to set up a "pending" section where you can drop waiting files (with bold due dates on the front). Look at this section first thing in the morning and pull out waiting files you'll need to handle that day. Other than that, just leave the projects alone and mentally unload them since your reminder system will jog you when you need it.

  5. Make communication your friend. In other words, follow up whenever you can in relation to your workload. Most co-workers know you're busy and that you'll get the job done, but their stress level rises the longer they go without touching base. You can often postpone an actual task as long as the co-worker or client knows what is going on, so make a point of informing them. This corresponds with handling your incoming data economically. For instance, if you get an e-mail asking about a deadline or for some information, quickly calculate what you think they need to know, tell them and get the request off your desk. If you choose to route calls to voicemail and check it twice a day, do the courtesy of responding to each message as required, even if it is to say "I'm on it and will get back to you with the right figures this afternoon." If you're going to be out of the office, make sure to use your e-mail program's automatic reply system to assure e-mail senders when you will be back and how deadlines will be handled. Do the same with your voicemail's out-of-office message option. Whatever you do, err on the side of giving too much communication so that your co-workers and clients know you're on top of whatever relates to them.

  6. Know when to let go. Have you ever essentially finished a project, but have been so busy or tired that you just let the files pile up? After all, they are finished, so you don't have to really worry about them, right? Wrong. Sooner or later, you can experience a mix-up of current and old data, or have trouble finding a bit of information from a "closed" project that might help with a new assignment. Solve this impending problem by making project/information closure an integral part of your workflow. Finishing three reports on the same day? Set those files aside and, before you head out for the day, do whatever last bit of filing, logging and storing for all three at one time. Need to make distribution copies on two separate projects? Do them at one time and then file. Need samples of publications you have produced for another department? As soon as you receive them, route the copies out, put one in your sample area and file one away with the project folder. Whatever your workflow, make sure when you are finished with something, you really "finish it" and put it away, out of sight.

  7. Keep a brief record of what you do. This is something you can do daily or weekly, but do it regularly. Why? Well, when evaluation time comes, you'll be one of the few who can present your management with an accurate picture of your accomplishments. When you need to negotiate timelines on new projects, you know what you've recently accomplished that might dictate that you bow out, or help you land an assignment you really want. If someone has a question about your part of a project, you'll have the answer at your fingertips. When your professional profile needs polishing, you'll have a template of achievements to discuss. Finally, if your line of work requires you to have portfolio samples of any kind, you'll be reminded to take these at the closing and recording of each valuable assignment.

Believe it or not, these steps really only take minutes a day and keep you from having your valuable time wasted. It really depends on you, since you might have a fair amount of self-training to do to teach yourself not to pick up every phone call, not to read to every e-mail the minute it comes in or not to search though multiple spots for that one bit of information. However, it's definitely worth it, both in lessening your stress and improving your turnaround time. That, in turn, can improve your relationship with your clients and co-workers as well as prompt additional praise and reward during performance evaluations. You don't have to turn into a "neat freak," or stop being relaxed and mellow in order to use these tricks. In fact, they take the bull out of your day so you can spend your time on what you really need and want to be doing - the substance of your job. Good luck!

L.J. Bothell is a graphic designer/writer with marketing communications emphasis who lives and temps/freelances in Seattle, Washington. Questions? Contact studiobast@att.net.

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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